Manon Lescaut isn’t generally considered Puccini’s best known (or loved) opera. After the first two acts of the current Royal Opera production I could see why.
Not that it’s a bad opera – there’s plenty of good Puccini in here. It’s not that it’s a bad production either. The staging is, frankly, incredible. I was fully prepared, once we’d had a people carrier rolled onstage, to find it brash, distracting and cheap, but I loved it. There’s also some fine singing and, as is always the case when Antonio Pappano is in the pit for Puccini, some wonderful orchestral playing.
On that note, before we go any further, I’d like to say I love the fact that the orchestra and chorus often get as big an ovation at the end of Covent Garden productions as the singers. It’s invariably well deserved and long may it continue. Meanwhile, back at the opera….
There are simply better Puccini operas than Manon Lescaut. It trips along nicely but doesn’t hit the highs of Boheme or Tosca – both of which leave you enthralled by the end of the first act. It’s largely down to the libretto. I struggled for two acts to see why Des Grieux would go to such lengths to chase Manon and, more to the point, what drove her in the first place. So far, so-so.
Then, after the interval, the second half of the evening began with an intermezzo before Act III and a simple device of projecting a couple of lines from the novel the opera is based on onto the velvet curtains in front of the stage. Somehow, this provided the most poignant moment of the evening so far, despite there being no singing (and a curtain in front of the stage).
It turns out Manon Lescaut is very much an opera of two halves. The third and fourth acts were thrilling, engaging and wonderfully delivered. The staging in the final act in particular is nothing short of stunning and the action wasn’t dwarfed in the slightest, which is a big ask when you’re singing on top of a massive collapsed motorway flyover.
Sondra Radvanovsky’s Manon was superb. Gritty rather than pretty and prepared to go to just as far to wring meaning and emotion from the role as Des Grieux is to follow Manon wherever she may go. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Des Grieux works well alongside her. Again, not necessarily a beautiful vocal portrayal of the role, but certainly packing a punch.
Sometimes – although never when I’m reviewing the production – I’ve been known to leave an opera house in the interval. I’ve never been more pleased I didn’t. This Royal Opera production is bold, brave and willing to take risks. If the opera itself was just a little bit stronger….
Manon Lescaut runs until December 12th. For more information and tickets, visit the website.